Tracking "Molly" in Philadelphia Isn't Easy

Part of a road is closed in Enfield after a head-on crash.

Surrounded by a crowd of onlookers, a man screams, yells and rolls across the ground outside a fast food restaurant in North Philadelphia.

Like a person possessed by a demon, the unidentified man jerks and slides across the ground as he suffers from an apparent adverse reaction to an illegal drug. As part of his trip, the man rolls into busy Lehigh Avenue. A woman desperately tries to stop traffic and keep him from being run over. Calls to 911 eventually bring paramedics to the scene who cart the man away on a stretcher.

"He must had a Molly. It’s a pill called Molly it has people acting like that," a man shooting video of the episode at 4th and Lehigh can be heard saying. "Yea, he caught a bad batch, that’s what it was."

While NBC10 cannot verify whether the man ingested the drug Molly, the behavior is not inconsistent with someone having an adverse reaction.

Molly is the powder or crystal form of MDMA (methylenedioxy-methamphetamine), a psychoactive drug that produces euphoria and stimulates the sensory organs. Often called the "pure" form MDMA, the drug is a component in Ecstasy.

In high doses, MDMA can inhibit the body from regulating its temperature, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. In regular doses, the drug can cause muscle tension, an increased heart rate, nausea, blurred vision and faintness, among other symptoms.

The illicit drug has been getting increased attention after a number of recent drug-related deaths shut down a New York City dance festival and pop culture references like the lyrics of Miley Cyrus' hit song "We Can't Stop."

While witnesses suggest the man in the video is having a bad reaction to Molly, that's just a casual observer's remarks. The truth is, it's tough to determine the narcotic's true prevalence in and around Philadelphia.

Dr. Jeanmarie Perrone, Director of the Division of Medical Toxicology in the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania's Emergency Department, says the drug is difficult to track for a number of reasons -- including testing for it.

“In general, it would not come up on a tox[icology] screen," she said. "Most tox screens are pre-set…Routinely, most places would not test for the drug.”

Dr. Perrone says while doctors can spot symptoms related to Molly use, pinpointing the specific compound is necessary to find it in toxicology testing.

“We’ve had a few cases at our hospital of people who show some of the symptoms, but haven’t said they’ve used the drug," she said. "Or people who say they took Molly, but the testing doesn’t show it."

Users may not experience complications with Molly as often and to the same degree as other narcotics like heroin and percocet, which could mean fewer Molly users show up at local hospitals, according to the doctor.

The most comprehensive data on the drug's use has been compiled through a voluntary national survey. Dr. Perrone says self-reporting also complicates measuring the drug's usage.

A national survey conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found more than 2.6 million people over the age of 12 took Ecstasy or Molly in 2012. That’s a jump of 7 percent over the year before.

A drug typically tied to the rave scene, David Dongilli, Special Agent in Charge of the Philadelphia division of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) says law enforcement are now seeing Molly used by a new crowd – that may surprise some.

“We’re starting to see middle-aged professionals beginning to experiment with the drug. They’ve sort of bought into this marketing plan by the criminal organizations that this is pure MDMA. It’s as if it has some sort of organic value and, unfortunately, it’s anything but organic and pure,” he said.

A high school survey on illicit drug use conducted by the University of Michigan shows a significant drop in MDMA use by teens. Use by 12th graders dropped from 5.3 percent in 2011 to 3.8 percent in 2012. That trend continues among 10th and 8th grade students.

Dongilli says drug dealers and manufacturers are using its popularity and "pure" hallmark to dupe people into thinking Molly is safe to take.

“It gives the perception that there’s some safety in taking this drug,” he said. “Any criminal or criminal enterprise, they’re going to capitalize on the popularity on the drug trade here. Right now, Molly is popular.”

Like any illegal drug, users most likely do not know whether they’re even getting the pure MDMA. Dongilli says drug manufacturers trying to make as much cash as possible during the Molly hype are cutting the drug with dangerous mixtures.

“What you have are people ingesting rat poison, methamphetamine mixed with cocaine, acids and any other chemical that they can get together in pill form or some sort of crystallized and sadly people are ingesting this and dying from it,” he said.

Philadelphia’s Molly problem isn’t atypical of other major cities, according to Dongilli. He says the local DEA office, working with police, has had success cutting off smuggle routes to stop the drug from hitting the streets. But he admits, the battle between law enforcement and criminals is constant and on-going.

Contact Vince Lattanzio at 610.668.5532, or follow @VinceLattanzio on Twitter.